Interview: On following one's dream with Pal Nagy

Regular readers have met Hungarian expat Pál Nagy in my tales of his icOn 4Pro passive-magnetic preamp; of his custom icOn 4Pro SE which he built for me with a fixed hi/lo-pass filter; and of the still unwinding story on his Gradient Box. I'm marginally involved in that just by having had the nerve to ask for it. Hey, pushy journalists. Given my enthusiasm for his products, the time was ripe to interview Pál formally. I'd never yet met him. This could fill gaps in my ongoing narrative—like what did he do before his current audio adventures in Manchester?—then cast our communal eyes on product he's currently prepping like the icOn Hi-Res teased in this PCB.

[Agnes and Pál in their office.] "By training I'm an electronics engineer. My degree is from the Budapest Technical University which at the time was the top place for engineers. My subsequent career started in 1984 with a small privately owned cooperative between me, some friends and colleagues during our country's still Iron Curtain period. We were a development team specializing in automatization and measuring equipment. Right away we won a contract to design very advanced measuring gear which I still use for my work today, applying FFT to examine the spectral components of various signals. That made us the first Eastern Bloc firm to deal with this type of multi-processor equipment with embedded military parts. I got to work with the first-ever digital signal processors from Texas Instruments and Motorola. Like now, that meant 60 to 80hr weeks. I spent altogether nine years with this small cooperative though after about seven years, I started to wonder about doing things beyond just engineering. So I pursued a 2-year degree in Economics since during the 1990s, Hungary began its experiment with finishing Socialism and joining the West's Capitalist societies. That ended up destroying most of our domestic industry. First to go was the electronics sector.

Many corporations went bankrupt. Our small cooperative survived another year or two after I left. By then I was working in the computer industry for various distributors. Soon I was working for the biggest German IT distribution company in Europe at the time, Computer 2000. I began as product marketing manager then advanced to purchasing and logistics director. I regularly signed $10'000'000 orders from Compaq, IBM, HP and others. This taught me the logistics side of stock keeping where a wrong decision can lead to extreme losses just a few months later. Of course there were perks too like a nice company car and extensive travel budget. I subsequently spent nearly two years with product marketing at another company. By about 2004/05 I once again started feeling that something new was on the horizon. This wasn't the life I'd enjoy much longer. It's when I met  Agnes after a previous divorce with two kids. Suddenly I had this idea to get immersed in natural therapies. My main focus became a diploma in kinesiology which allowed me to treat people. This was a completely new world to this engineer. One of my biggest takeaways became that the universe is far more complicated than we perceive or can ever measure. Now the holistic view began to augment my engineering training and I grew very disenchanted with the dirty IT business which creates new software just to make prior hardware obsolete and generate huge profits from selling replacements.

In 2006 I read The Alchemist, a fable by Paulo Coelho about following our dream. It was a life-changing experience. A week later I handed in my resignation papers with no idea of what to do next. I just felt different and knew that change was in the air. While all my friends thought I was crazy to leave such a lucrative position, Agnes understood and supported my decision. Earning her own salary gave me some time for the next step which explored the natural therapies with a small LLC that we formed in Hungary. Through our website we sold various machines for meditation and relaxation, pulse and magnetic therapy, even bio resonance. Within a year this turned into a profitable little online business of sales and workshops. In Hungary it turned out to have been the right time and place to start an Internet business.

Then we spent a few years traveling by backpack, bicycling from Seattle to San Franscisco and learning what was really important to us. In 2013 we spent a month in Nepal and did a 10-day Vipassana retreat in total silence. Afterwards I felt that I'd had enough selling products over the Internet in just Hungary where economic regulations began to cause issues. I wanted to expand into international sales. So we created the necessary legal entity in the UK. Through it the plan was to do global sales in Hungary.

By now my daughter had finished college and moved to the UK to work. We visited. Whilst there, we tried to open a business account for our new company since credit card payments would be absolutely essential to doing online sales. Due to restrictive regulations, that wasn't possible in Hungary. After being given the runaround by various banks, one clerk finally told us that without proof of an English address, we'd never open an account. So we moved to the UK and for a year rented a flat in South London thinking that we'd return to Hungary afterwards. Once we started working out of the UK alas, I realized that our small business had far more opportunities and far less regulatory interference there. After our first year was up, we decided not to return to Hungary. There we had a 200m² house which we sold within one week to buy the very first small house we viewed in Manchester. That's because pricing in the south of England proved well beyond our means and online research indicated that we should look in the north. That was in 2014. Again we didn't have a plan for our new life but I had an idea for our own product. This had come to me during that Vipassana meditation in Nepal. It became the Ganzfeld goggle which I developed to create a practical and affordable device for the very well-documented research on how to easily get one's brain into the theta state. I sold that for a while. Then I remembered my childhood dream of British hifi and Quad electrostats. By now I was living in the very place that birthed them. So I started to buy vintage British kit over eBay and refurbished it for my own use.

As a hobby, I started spending more time with online audiophile groups on FaceBook. One day a £4'000 UK-made passive preamp kicked off a thread. Someone asked whether it was a good deal or not. I looked closer. I saw a nearly empty box with a rat's nest of wiring, two transformers, two rotary selectors and some i/o. I was shocked by this basic construction with its 100-year old tech yet very stiff price tag.

I also understood just how clever the basic concept of a transformer volume control is with its built-in impedance conversion and absentee distortion. I was simultaneously embarrassed by the execution and fascinated with its concept. So my inner engineer decided to make something better. I started to source parts and began with the Silk transformers from SAC Thailand which a friend was already using.

With my prior IT experience I decided to develop a micro-processor controller to switch the secondaries similar to John Chapman's original Bent Audio TAP X you reviewed. Within a few months I had my first version. I showed it to a few friends and one of them bought it for £800. He also proposed the name icOn. Because I'd spent quite a bit of time and money on it, I thought I should make a few more and try to tell them. That was in 2016. The first few years were quiet because nobody knew of the icOn's existence. Once your review published, everything changed. By then I'd completely moved to Dave Slagle's autoformers because I saw that regular attenuation transformers have ringing issues. They use essentially twice the wiring that's really needed and also suffer built-in step limits. My current icOn meanwhile has 68 steps of mostly 1dB and the new Hi-Res version will do 160 x half a dB steps across an attenuation range of 80dB.

It's because some poorly informed audiophiles believe that just because certain equipment features matching connectors, they should hook it up together. They don't understand that connecting a boutique DAC with a loaded 10V output to an exotic tube amp with 0.2V input sensitivity to expensive 110dB speakers requires extreme attenuation and with most solutions still creates noise and resolution losses. They don't see the fundamental 30-40dB gain mismatch which now demands a 70-80dB attenuation range. Of course ½dB steps even in that context are arguably not necessary. If one wants to A/B two components however, matching them to within half a decibel is still better than 1dB. And, some customers aren't content with a top-range Lexus. They demand a Bentley or Ferrari. Obviously none of it would work with a standard transformer volume because if you had only one wire turn at the output, you'd need a grotesque number of turns at the input. Still, this confusion about gain has been a constant. The customer with the boutique DAC insists that the 10V output sounds superior to the 4V output. He categorically refuses to use the latter despite calm explanations why it will be better. Not all of it is his fault though. Some manufacturers promote equipment combinations which are badly flawed just to make a quick fat sale. My Hi-Res icOn will deal with such gain mismatches in an elegant way. Much more important than the finer granularity of course is its far broader attenuation range of eighty decibels. That's unusual even for resistive volume controls and could be a dream come true for lovers of high-efficiency horns by giving them more options for their amplifiers.

Another difference over the standard icOn will be the option of a nice Nixie tube display; and a heavier bigger case with a broad range of i/o modules to become a premier truly universal solution. I might add input naming, input matching to switch from a low-output phono stage to a high-voltage DAC without sudden jumps and more such amenities. A lot of that is in response to customers asking for a premium icOn. They have already maxed out my existing platform with quads of costly silver autoformers for true balanced operation and all top-line Furutech connectors. Still they want more. So while I will have my small lightweight starter £1'000 icOn Zen, I'll also have a premium model for the Bentley owners. For them my current product is too small, too light and too cheap. But just because it's not my personal lifestyle, it makes no sense to overlook the top-end market segment. For the maxed-out version, I might even have the Gradient Box available as a built-in module. We'll see. For that smart crossover [above] I still have to write a bit more firmware and wait on certain parts but most the functionality works already and distortion is just 0.0001%.

That now covered Pál's past, present and immediate future relative to hifi. We spoke of the peculiarity that about 50% of his icOns end up in €100'000+ systems so wildly beyond what the designer himself listens to. We spoke of audiophilia as an entrenched religion in which engineers wage losing battles against ignorance and outmoded beliefs and wrestle with customers unwilling to even try new things. What will be next? "Roughly every seven years something in our lives seems to make a big turn. I still have a few more icOn years left before the next turn is due should another one approach again. If so, I haven't a clue what that might be."

Perhaps Pál will tire of audiophilia? If so, get into the icOn act now while the going is still good. There's solid reason why Pál's business is called Life-Changer Audio UK…